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Ditch the GPS And Teach Your Kids to Read a Map

Photograph by Twenty20

Technology has taken us so far, but it is also hindering us when it comes to some basic life skills. Map-reading is a dying art as GPS takes over. We once used maps and hand-written directions to get from point A to point B, but now we almost always rely on a device that we trust will take us where we want to go.

We don't even print out Google Maps anymore—we simply let the app talk us to our destination.

Don't get me wrong, technology, especially the GPS, is a brilliant thing, but it has taken me the long way to a simple destination and also gotten me lost more than once. Reliance on GPS means kids' brains aren't wiring up in the way to read maps. Adults are quickly losing the abilities they did have to read a map. Kids will suffer for it in the long run.

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An easy example of a GPS fail is a multigenerational trip I took to Scotland with my parents and my two boys. We were in the highlands, headed back to the cozy little cottage we had rented. After hiking around all morning, we were tired. Naturally, we hit an accident on the one road that would take us back. Our GPS could not find an alternate route. According to the lovely British woman telling us where to go on the GPS, there was no other route. My mother, wise woman that she is, pulled out a paper road map to see what she could find. My older son, age 6, looked at her and asked, "What's that?"

My oldest was fascinated by the fact that we could get somewhere without a lady yelling out the directions from the GPS.

My jaw dropped. How could my son not know what a map was? We had maps of the world and the country all over our house. But no, this was a detailed map of the very specific area of Scotland that we were in. It had roads, lakes, streams and mountains all over it. It also had an alternate route back to our cottage. It would take us longer, but we later found out there was a two-hour backup on the road we had been stuck on. By turning around and going the longer way around, we actually saved time, saw more of the country, and my boys took a little nap as we drove. My oldest was fascinated by the fact that we could get somewhere without a lady yelling out the directions from the GPS. He trusted that lady, but he soon learned he could trust the map, too.

So how can you introduce map reading to your kids? Start as early as possible, which may also require that you, the adult, have to refresh some of your own skills. The simplest way to learn how to read a map is to get a little bit lost. Find a hiking trail with a map and let your child lead the way, or go to a museum and give them the exhibit map: ask them figure out how to get you to the room you desire. You don't have to be in a car to read a map. You will get turned around and end up somewhere other than your destination, but that is OK. Have patience as your child figures it out.

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Tips to reading a road map

  • Don't rely on your GPS for every trip. Hand your child a paper map of your destination. It is worth the price to buy a road atlas or print out a map.
  • Show your child where direction north, south, east and west are located on the map. Then point northward from where you are standing.
  • Show your child what a river looks like compared to a road. Maps are a bunch of squiggly lines, so learning what each type of line means is key.
  • Point out the road you are on right now and your destination.
  • Let your child run his or her finger along the road you are on. Help them figure out where you should turn to get to your destination. Use markers or highlighters if needed to map out a route.
  • Start driving and see if your child can get you where you need to go.

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